Bob Bubb became an NCAA All-American in 1959, wrestling in the University of Iowa’s gymnasium.
Nearly 60 years later, Nico Megaludis won a national title in “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” New York’s Madison Square Garden, with a finals attendance of 19,270 — more than the crowd for the entire 1959 tournament — and an additional 655,000 viewers watching ESPN’s broadcast.
Over its more-than-90-year history, the NCAA wrestling championships saw changes in structure and media attention, but what remains from the beginning is the importance of the tournament to wrestlers and wrestling fans.
“As a student-athlete, it was big,” said Bubb, a former Pitt wrestler who finished fourth at the 1959 tournament before going on to coach five national champions — including Kurt Angle — at Clarion. “It was always in these smaller events centers or campuses, maybe 6,000 or 7,000 capacity, and it was always full.”
The NCAA tournament returns to Pittsburgh on Thursday for the first time since 1957, bringing action to one of the country’s wrestling hotbeds. The state ranks as one of, if not the best, for high school wrestling, and Penn State won seven of the past eight NCAA titles. More than 50 NCAA qualifiers this week hail from Pennsylvania, the largest representation of any state by twofold.
“With as good as high school wrestling is in that area, there are so many schools coming into town that feature wrestlers from west-central Pennsylvania,” NCAA spokesman Matt Holmes said. “Whether the school is located there or not, certainly it’s a heavily recruited area for almost every Division I wrestling program in the country.”
When the NCAA tournament came to Pittsburgh in 1957, action took place at Pitt’s Fitzgerald Field House. PPG Paints Arena will play host this time around, continuing this century’s norm of the tournament going to large-scale arenas.
The bigger venues caused crowds to skyrocket, with total attendance cracking 100,000 six times in the past eight years. Last season’s tournament, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, set new finals (19,776) and overall (113,743) attendance records.
Television coverage only added to the hoopla. ESPN began televising the finals live in 2004 and kept expanding over the ensuing 15 years. The three prime-time sessions this week will air on ESPN, with early sessions on ESPNU and live video broadcasts of every match available on ESPN3, the company’s digital arm.
“There’s quite nothing like it,” said Megaludis, a Franklin Regional graduate and four-time college All-American at Penn State who won a NCAA championship at 125 pounds in 2016. “I’ve been to many places in the world, even internationally, and I love international wrestling, but just the fan base, it being on ESPN and you have 19,000 people there, you’ve got to enjoy the bright lights when you compete there.
“If you don’t appreciate it and feed off it, you’re probably going to be hurting at the NCAA tournament.”
Holmes said the increased crowds only enhanced the atmosphere, with wrestling considered one of the most passionate fan bases in college sports.
The wrestling championships take place over the first three days of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, so Holmes said the crowd is one truly interested in the sport.
“They’re invested in wrestling — they’re not necessarily just there because ‘the basketball championship is in town,’ ” Holmes said. “That leads to just an incredible energy in the building, especially when you’ve got eight different matches going on at one time, and you might hear one pocket of the arena scream and yell. You look over and it’s the black and gold of Iowa, and then you’ve got to look and find out and see if they’re screaming because a guy from Iowa won, or a guy they maybe don’t like from another institution they don’t like, one of their rivals, lost.
“… It’s just a super unique atmosphere that you don’t get anywhere else.”
Over the years the tournament expanded from four All-Americans in each weight class to eight, allowing for more wrestlers to earn recognition.
Pitt coach Keith Gavin, a national champion in 2008 when he wrestled for the Panthers, said the parity is greater in wrestling, with conferences like the ACC making big strides.
“I can remember the top guys were always good, but I think the coaching is better,” Bubb said. “A lot of the athletes that graduated went into coaching, and therefore the student-athlete became better. The depth today in the sport is deeper.”
Megaludis, who was competing in Russia last week but plans to attend the NCAA championships this week, said he had major wrestling goals from the time he was 5 years old. Winning a national title was one of them, and he attained that in his final collegiate match.
Ten wrestlers will ascend to the top of the podium this week, joining the likes of Megaludis on college wrestling’s biggest stage.
“I can guarantee you probably 95 — 99 — percent of the people that have won an NCAA title probably constantly dreamed about winning it,” he said. “Probably 99.9.”